Let me start by saying that my favourite film is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. This might be your cue to leave already but, if it isn’t, here’s the trailer (which I’m not entirely sure if it’s SFW or not at this point):
The second important part of this introduction requires pointing out that this post contains a lot of opinions (which is not something I usually do), most of them which I’m not educated enough to safely say are educated opinions or not. This means that I’d love to learn from you if I’m saying a bunch of bullcrap, so you’re very welcome to the comments section! Having taken care of these important disclaimers, let me begin my ramblings.
The light Among The Rocks
I’ve watched The Lighthouse this weekend and after it was over, there was quite a bit of silence all around. It took me about 3-4 hours to come to the conclusion that it’s a really, really great movie. Not only it got under my skin, but having to rationalise on WHY I felt it was good was excellent food for thought.
Everyone has different levels of understanding of different art forms, as consumers. In my case, I can safely say if there’s one thing I know absolutely nothing about is fashion – it baffles me that lots of things I’ve ever seen being praised are not interesting at all to me, and it feels like a lot of it is just gate keeping by self entitled turds – like every other art form that is highly dependent on critic opinion, really.
However, as a game developer, I got to the point where the kinds of games that I enjoy are not the games “normal people” enjoy. It’s inevitable, really: the more you deal with something, the more you will demand to be excited about it – which makes me understand where the self entitled turdness comes from. It’s the bane of being a maker of anything, and games are the thing I’ve reached that point.
I have, however, watched enough films to start getting a glimpse of what’s important to make a good one. The good thing is that I’m just “the audience”, which means I can still enjoy your popcorn blockbusters every now and then. What I really dig, however, is the weird shit.
I’ve always been known amongst my friends as the guy who enjoys the weird shit, and I can’t really pinpoint why – I just know that there’s some specific circuitry in my head that only really starts firing off if I look at something and feel I have no idea of what the hell is going on. Maybe it’s because I’ve been trained to constantly rationalise for the past two decades or something (both in my professional and personal life), and it’s nice to go for a mental rollercoaster ride every now and then.
In any case, I’ve been very glad about the new wave of horror films, and the filmmakers that stuck with me the most lately were Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. In the case of Hereditary and Midsommar, it’s very much the “oh shit, they actually did that” factor, and the slow build up to these insane climaxes. In the case of The VVitch, a lot of it comes from how accurate it was (do remember that one of my favourite books about science is a treaty on witchcraft from the 1600s). But all of them are excellent exercises in mood crafting – blessed be A24 films.
Unlike The VVitch, which is a very clear story with beginning, middle and end and very little room for interpretation, The Lighthouse is a way more free form art piece. It was done in a very specific way and is way less about clarity than it is about you, the spectator, “being there“. You’re obviously wandering “wtf is going on” a lot of the time but, ironically, I don’t think it has a lot of surprises in terms of story beats (especially if you’re a fan of Iron Maiden). It was fun to realise all of the references to Greek mythology in retrospect right as the movie ended, and have a lot of questions about how much of the (literal) gate keeping is a central theme of the movie. Bonus points to the casting, by putting actors that are almost as far apart in terms of experience in their craft than their characters are in theirs. The cherry on top is how much the film doesn’t take itself seriously – if you don’t think that’s noteworthy, I’d like to see YOU make fart jokes a recurring theme in your drama and that actually adding to the worldbuilding.
HOWEVER, none of those things are the thing that made my mind about the fact that this an incredible film. It’s the simple fact that this couldn’t have been done better in any other medium.
Now, the acting, is top notch. Willem Dafoe’s monologues are A BEAST – but that’s something you could see in a theatre production. The same goes for the text itself, and even the production design. It is, however, the editing, cinematography and, impressively, the aspect ratio, that make the film truly shine. And you couldn’t get that anywhere else. It’s the director’s absolute control of light, camera angle and exposition make any other possible issue the film might have a secondary thing (as much as my good friend Arthur Protasio might disagree with me on this).
NOTE: you should really watch this in the cinema, so unless you’ve already seen the movie, I wouldn’t play the next video.
And this is why I think the story is the least important aspect here. It’s simply a vessel for all of this imagery and ambience. The important questions don’t come from what happens – the main plot points are all obvious, really – but from the questions that the director gets you to ask because he has complete control over what you see and hear. And this couldn’t be done that well if it wasn’t cinema.
Another successful disaster at sea
After the whole infamous “are games art” period of yore, we entered the (incredibly, still enduring to this day in some dark corners) era of “what is the Citizen Kane of videogames”. It’s a stupid question in many aspects, but it does give me a hook for an argument here: The Lighthouse is The Return of the Obra Dinn of movies.
2018 was a great year for games, but to me The Return of the Obra Dinn is clearly the best one. Ironically, at its core, the gameplay is not much more than a mix of spot the difference and Carmen Sandiego. In fact, if you distil the mechanics to their purest form, it’s a game that could have been made in the late 70s for the Apple II. It’s this very pastiche of that experience that brings you an incredible art style – this kind of retro-futurism actually being implemented in itself is already enough for it to be note worthy, but that’s not what makes the game great. It’s – you guessed it – the fact that you couldn’t get this experience to be better, in this format, anywhere else.
Games are, really, the opposite of cinema in the sense that by definition, if you take control of your player, it’s not a game anymore. Lukas Pope’s true mastery was knowing when to take control and how to limit it while still keeping the player feeling complete freedom – and that freedom of observation being in itself the true core mechanic.
And this is why it tells story way, way better than any Quantic Dream game ever did: the story is not a vessel, the story IS the gameplay – to me, personally, there’s no difference between an incredible AAA like Become Human and the Power Rangers Sega CD game, other than production value.
It’s also the same reason why I just wish Kojima would make you know… movies. I’d actually have the patience to watch them when they’re not a cutscene crammed in my face while I’m trying to carry my Norman Feetus around.
It’s very important to notice that I’m not saying that those games are bad, just that to me, as an audience, they miss the point when they’re trying too hard to be like movies – to the point where maybe, they’d be better if they were movies after all!
You should, however, seek inspiration from all things. Especially the things audio-visual – music and drawing were the original art forms. We’ve been telling stories forever and cinema has an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge, and about 100 years of a head start on games. There’s so much art out there that reinterpreting it can yield great results. But limiting yourself to reinterpretations is limiting your art.
At the same time, it’s ok to be “incomplete”: The Mandalorian had an average of half a story beat per episode, simply because every single one of them was just a long ass full motion version of really great concept art more than anything else. And it was great!
And that’s why The Lighthouse stuck with me: it made it very clear that whatever you make will be at its peak if you’re making the best out of your medium, to the point of it hardly being portable. Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy are all about control mastery – they wouldn’t be better as card games. Hereditary would need a completely different format in VR. You’ll hardly have Dixit or D&D being as enjoyable if it isn’t with a bunch of friends, in person, around a table.
So if you’re making video games, make sure that what you’re giving your players, they can’t have any other way.
Or don’t. I mean, you shouldn’t be taking art advice from a programmer, anyway.